Ascension Day: Living in the Gap

Ascension Eucharist


Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-53

Living in the Gap

I think that many of us often live in the gap between expectation and reality. Expectation is what we think or want to happen in a situation. Reality is what actually happens. When the gap between expectation and reality is small – we are generally happy. The wider the gap – the less happy we might be; as what we thought or hoped might happen can be a far cry from what really occurred.

I suspect that this gap is wide for many people in these trying times. We expected things, events to happen and they have either been delayed or cancelled. You might get a refund; or you might not; you might be able to rebook or maybe not. Many are living with the grief of events that won’t ever happen. We will all be living with some level of disappointment in the present moment.

I think that the disciples of Jesus had something of a gap between expectation and reality after his death. All the way along, Jesus had been telling them that he was going to leave them, go back to the Father, then send the counsellor, the Holy Spirit to be with them forever. It would appear as though the disciples did not fully understand what Jesus was trying to teach them.

Now the moment has arrived: Jesus is going up into heaven and the Holy Spirit is coming to clothe them with power from on high.

But is it what the disciples expected?

If you read all of Luke 24 starting with the women, Peter and John at the empty tomb to Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus to Jesus standing among them and eating the broiled fish – there is fear and doubt and disbelief. I suspect that the gap between expectation and reality was wide in these moments.

Thankfully, it is in the Ascension of Jesus that the gap is finally narrowed for the disciples and for us too. Sometimes seeing really is believing! However, we are those who must believe without seeing; our comfort comes in knowing that we are blessed for it.

While we may not have seen the Ascension for ourselves, many artists have depicted it over time; I will share a few of my favourites! I have a side interest in art – I love a wander around a museum looking at paintings. Can’t wait to do that again!

Benvenuto Garfalo (1510-ish)

Adriaen Van Overbeke (1516)

El Greco (1577)

If you notice, many Ascension paintings have two parts: an upper Heavenly and a lower earthly part. The ascending Christ often carries a banner or a scroll or makes a Blessing gesture with His right hand towards the group below him.
I pay attention to the faces in the crowd, watching as Jesus ascends – some people look peaceful and calm, others bemused, others in shock and disbelief. Some are reaching, falling, covering their eyes at this sight Others are looking away or looking down. A mixed response to Jesus. The gap between heaven and earth is small. Garfalo shows the cloud of witnesses waiting for Jesus – leaving the rest with a glimpse of heaven. Van Overbeke’s entrance into heaven is small, narrow.

Some paintings are dramatic – such as El Greco’s. El Greco paints Jesus as he arrives in heaven. He is very white, a sign of his purity and holiness. I think Jesus looks tired, but also peaceful and at rest in the arms of the Father. The angels attending to him look a bit more stressed. The white dove hovering above the scene represents the Holy Spirit.

In these paintings, we get a visual of Jesus filling the gap between heaven and earth, us and God. Jesus also helps to bring our expectations and reality closer too.
Jesus doesn’t mind the gap – he fills the gap. There are a few gaps that need to be filled:

The first gap is the matter of his body. The Resurrection of Jesus without the Ascension leaves us with the problem of what happened to His body. The gospels are clear that the body which was laid in the tomb on Friday evening left the tomb on Sunday morning.

When Jesus appeared to His disciples in the resurrection accounts, they were seeing a real body. Jesus said, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have”. A hallucination can fade away, but a body has to go somewhere. If Jesus’ resurrected body didn’t ascend, as the scriptures say, what happened to it?

Regardless of belief in Jesus or not – it is fairly accepted that He did walk on this earth and He was killed by the authorities. In their desperation to disprove His followers, why did they not just exhume the body and show everyone what a lot of nonsense it all was.

Jesus did ascend and He is in Heaven.

Heaven is the second gap that gets filled with Jesus’ ascension. Many people have ideas about what heaven is and isn’t, where it is and what happens. I take the position that heaven is not a location within the universe, but a different dimension. Heaven is where and when we will spend all of eternity with God the Father and Jesus the Son.

The astronauts who went to the moon were no nearer to Heaven than us. The Russian astronaut who sneered that he didn’t see God or Heaven while in orbit came as no surprise.

Finally, in the Ascension, Jesus fills the gap of what we are to do next. I don’t know about you, but I often struggle to remember what Jesus said as he ascended into heaven.

The short answer is nothing new.

In Acts, Jesus tells the apostles that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit imminently and that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Luke says essentially the same thing as Jesus opened the apostles’ minds to understand the scriptures.

They were no to be silent witnesses either! The apostles were to go and tell the story, spread the Good News.
Jesus didn’t leave them alone to get on with it. He was with them. Instead they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy”. This is not the emotion you feel when you lose your best friend. They somehow knew in that moment they were going to getting more of Jesus, not less.

As we read the book of Acts, we see an excited buzz of activity among the 120 believers. They were meeting together and praying and planning the work that needed to be done. They knew they had a job, and that is why they selected another apostle to replace Judas. They knew there had to be 12 people, representative of the new Israel. They just needed to wait in Jerusalem, until they received the Holy Spirit.

Matthew’s gospel records Jesus’ last words as: ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Jesus’ Ascension means the presence, not the absence, of Jesus. The apostles didn’t take the Ascension to mean that Jesus was no longer with them. There was no feeling that the good old days with Jesus were in the past. Rather, there was an anticipation to even greater things, as had been promised He is not absent as we understand absence.

Jesus is the filler of gaps between our lost expectations and the reality that we might not want. He was to the apostles and is to us now. His position in heaven means that we have a place there too. This is the Good News that needs to be shared with those around us who do not know or belief. In the season of Thy Kingdom Come, we can share this amazing news with those around us whose gaps are wide and unfillable. Let’s be bold, and brave as those first apostles were.